Public health agencies and researchers have come to know a swath of the southeastern United States as the stroke belt in recent years, due to the higher number of strokes and cases of cardiovascular disease.
The Stroke Belt is defined as the geographic area which includes Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Indiana and Kentucky.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been collecting data related to strokes for decades. When looking at the past 40 years, the data reveals that people who come from these states are at least twice as likely to suffer a stroke during their lifetime.
The key period that is associated with putting people at risk is childhood and early adulthood. People who move from these areas in adulthood continue to have a higher risk later in life, while adults who move to these states have a lower risk of stroke or cognitive decline as they age.
What is the Impact on Cognitive Decline?
The risk of stroke is a daunting enough prospect, but now, data has revealed that these individuals also are at increased risk of cognitive decline. A study from researchers at the University of Alabama Birmingham found that people who have spent the entirety of their young adulthood in the region were 51% more likely to develop cognitive impairment when compared to people who have never lived in the one of those eight states.
Those who lived outside the Stroke Belt as young adults were found to be 30% less likely to develop cognitive impairment.
The study compared roughly 11,500 people with an average age of 64 residing in the Stroke Belt states with around 9,000 people who came from outside of it who were roughly the same age. Screening tests were used to examine memory and thought-processing speed. Selected participants were determined to be cognitively sound at the start of the study. The same screening test was repeated annually throughout the study, with an average participant having nine years between the first and last test.
In the end, risk of cognitive decline for people who grew up in these states was significantly greater based on this research, but the insight gained from it is limited due to only one type of cognitive assessment being used. Researchers are now looking at different ways to measure cognitive function to further support their assertions.
Why is This Happening?
There could be a number of factors driving what researchers are finding when it comes to patients in the Stroke Belt, particularly genetic factors. It’s been suggested that those who have had a family member suffer a stroke have a 33% higher chance of suffering one as well. Blood type, for example, can play a factor in the risk of stroke. But truthfully, there are much more important factors than your genetic makeup in assessing your risk of a stroke.
Dietary patterns and lifestyle play just as big a factor in stroke risk as genes. What researchers refer to as the Southern Dietary Pattern is characterized by added fats, fried food, eggs, organ and processed meats, and beverages that contain added sugars. As a result, conditions such as high blood pressure and obesity are more common conditions in this part of the country.
Socioeconomic factors also play a role. These states typically have higher disparities between social classes, a factor that can drive stressors which increase the risk of stroke.
All of these factors can increase the risk of experiencing cognitive decline in old age as well. Developing good eating habits and developing a healthy lifestyle centered around exercise and proper rest can go a long way toward helping you avoid suffering a stroke as well cognitive decline, no matter where you live.